Net­flix and Ama­zon spark an­i­ma­tion re­vival, spend­ing heav­ily in quest for binge-wor­thy shows

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Arts - BY WENDY LEE Los An­ge­les Times

For a decade, vet­eran TV ex­ec­u­tive Fred Seib­ert’s stu­dio pitched the idea for an edgy an­i­mated story in­spired by a 1989 Ja­panese video game. Called “Castl­e­va­nia,” it fea­tured scenes of de­monic mon­sters at­tack­ing towns and de­vour­ing hu­man flesh.

Dozens of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing TV net­works, passed on it. Un­de­terred, Seib­ert took the idea to Net­flix, which ea­gerly scooped up the ex­clu­sive rights and re­leased the show last year. “Castl­e­va­nia” quickly be­came a hit.

“Net­flix re­ally looked at it as an ex­per­i­ment,” said Seib­ert, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive of MTV and Hanna-Bar­bera Car­toons. “It is that op­por­tu­nity that tech­nol­ogy has opened up that has made both cre­ative peo­ple and plat­forms look at the world dif­fer­ently and there­fore au­di­ences get to look at things dif­fer­ently.”

Seib­ert’s ex­pe­ri­ence shows how Hol­ly­wood’s ris­ing dig­i­tal pow­ers are breath­ing new life into the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try. Stream­ing net­works are not only tak­ing risks on an­i­mated shows ori­ented to­ward adults, they are green-light­ing a host of new car­toons for chil­dren – dis­cov­er­ing that one of the best ways to keep par­ents pay­ing their monthly sub­scrip­tions is to get their kids hooked on shows ex­clu­sive to their plat­forms.

“An­i­ma­tion is a re­ally core area,” said Melissa Cobb, vice pres­i­dent of kids and fam­ily con­tent for Net­flix. “We have a lot of view­ers through­out the world who are re­ally lov­ing an­i­ma­tion.”

MORE SPEND­ING

Stream­ing com­pa­nies, led by Net­flix and Ama­zon, are rapidly in­creas­ing their spend­ing on an­i­ma­tion con­tent, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Loup Ven­tures. This year, Net­flix is ex­pected to spend $1.1 bil­lion, 11 per­cent of its over­all orig­i­nal con­tent bud­get, on an­i­ma­tion. Ama­zon is pro­jected to spend $300 mil­lion this year, rep­re­sent­ing 10 per­cent of its bud­get, Loup Ven­tures said. By 2022, that in­vest­ment will grow dra­mat­i­cally to nearly $5 bil­lion for Net­flix and

$1.86 bil­lion for Ama­zon Prime Video, the firm es­ti­mates.

The spend­ing has been a boon to the in­dus­try, cre­at­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for artists and film­mak­ers alike.

“It’s spon­sored an ex­plo­sion in growth,” said Thomas Sito, a pro­fes­sor of the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s School of Cin­e­matic Arts. “There is a lot more con­tent be­ing worked on right now.”

But the grow­ing clout of stream­ing busi­nesses in the an­i­ma­tion arena poses a grow­ing threat to tra­di­tional me­dia com­pa­nies that once dom­i­nated kids pro­gram­ming. Net­flix and oth­ers are cap­i­tal­iz­ing on changes in con­sumer be­hav­ior as younger au­di­ences by­pass tra­di­tional ca­ble TV – which has long supplied view­ers for such kids net­works as Dis­ney Chan­nel and Nick­elodeon. Dis­ney is pre­par­ing to launch its own stream­ing ser­vice that will pro­vide a new plat­form for fam­ily-friendly shows, heat­ing up the com­pe­ti­tion for an­i­mated fare.

FAM­ILY CON­TENT

“There’s no ques­tion that these stream­ing ser­vices are try­ing to win fam­ily [con­tent],” said Eu­nice Shin, manag­ing di­rec­tor at con­sult­ing firm Manatt Dig­i­tal.

Cobb and other ex­ec­u­tives cite sev­eral rea­sons for the pop­u­lar­ity of an­i­ma­tion. Stream­ing pro­grams can be viewed any­time and on any de­vice, mak­ing it es­pe­cially ap­peal­ing to par­ents with young chil­dren. Some an­i­ma­tors have large fan bases on so­cial me­dia, pro­vid­ing them with ready­made au­di­ences. And the shows have wide­spread ap­peal among view­ers world­wide and can be eas­ily dubbed in dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

“There is so much po­ten­tial view­er­ship now do­mes­ti­cally and world­wide they will need con­tent of all kinds, so it’s not just one type of con­tent or one genre,” said Teresa Cheng, chair of USC’s John C. Hench Divi­sion of An­i­ma­tion & Dig­i­tal Arts.

Un­like some adults who can cut their Net­flix sub­scrip­tions af­ter they binge a whole sea­son of “House of Cards,” par­ents of young chil­dren have a harder time do­ing that with an­i­mated shows.

An­i­mated pro­grams, in some cases, are the rea­son why fam­i­lies pay for sub­scrip­tions, said Michael Hirsh, CEO of Toron­to­based an­i­ma­tion busi­ness Wow Un­lim­ited Me­dia, which owns the stu­dio that pro­duces “Castl­e­va­nia” for Net­flix.

“Kids don’t want you can­cel­ing and un-can­cel­ing,” Hirsh said. Stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix “dis­cov­ered that kids pro­gram­ming was the sticky part of the pro­gram­ming that kept sub­scribers sub­scrib­ing.”

Net­flix has led the push into kids fare, adding 21 orig­i­nal an­i­mated se­ries to its plat­form from Jan­uary to Oc­to­ber, with its cat­a­log to­tal­ing 72 shows, ac­cord­ing to data sci­ence firm Par­rot An­a­lyt­ics. Ama­zon added four orig­i­nal an­i­mated shows, bring­ing its to­tal to 15 dur­ing the same time pe­riod. Hulu says it has two orig­i­nal an­i­mated se­ries on its plat­form.

Net­flix, head­quar­tered in Los Gatos, Calif., also out­spent its ri­vals in mar­ket­ing dol­lars for an­i­mated shows last sum­mer, spend­ing more than $2 mil­lion pri­mar­ily pro­mot­ing its an­i­mated se­ries “Dis­en­chant­ment,” ac­cord­ing to New York firm Me­di­aRadar, which tracks ads.

Net­flix says nearly 60 per­cent of its sub­scribers con­sume kids and fam­ily con­tent ev­ery month. Last week, Net­flix an­nounced six new orig­i­nal an­i­mated ti­tles, in­clud­ing “My Fa­ther’s Dragon,” a 2-D an­i­mated fea­ture film, and “Kid Cos­mic,” an an­i­mated se­ries pro­duced by

Craig McCracken, the cre­ator of “The Pow­er­puff Girls.” Other re­cently an­nounced projects in­clude a stop-mo­tion “Pinoc­chio” film by Academy Award- win­ning di­rec­tor Guillermo del Toro and Ra­jiv Chi­laka’s “Mighty Lit­tle Bheem,” a show for preschool­ers.

Net­flix also is work­ing with high-pro­file an­i­ma­tors, in­clud­ing Glen Keane, who will di­rect the an­i­mated movie “Over the

Moon.” About a year ago, Net­flix be­gan of­fer­ing work spa­ces for an­i­ma­tors at its L.A. of­fice, Cobb said.

The hunger for more an­i­ma­tion has boosted pro­duc­tion busi­nesses like DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion, which signed a deal with Net­flix in 2013 to pro­vide more than 300 hours of pro­gram­ming. Since then, em­ploy­ment at the Glen­dale stu­dio’s TV unit has surged to 800 em­ploy­ees in re­sponse to de­mand from Net­flix and other com­pa­nies.

Mean­while, Net­flix’s archri­val also has been ag­gres­sively build­ing its an­i­ma­tion pipe­line.

Ama­zon has launched kid-friendly shows based on popular book or video game fran­chises, re­cently adding five new an­i­mated spe­cials. Ama­zon Prime Video in Septem­ber pre­miered “Pete the Cat,” an an­i­mated show about a cool cat who learns how to em­brace who he is.

Fig­ur­ing out “how can we ex­cite fam­i­lies and par­ents who are look­ing for things to pro­vide their kids to watch” is part of the think­ing be­hind Ama­zon’s con­tent strat­egy, said Melissa Wolfe, the com­pany’s head of kids pro­gram­ming.

“An­i­ma­tion is a way that you can kind of high­light some fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments and build re­ally mag­i­cal worlds and ex­pe­ri­ences that you might not be able to do in the live-ac­tion space,” Wolfe said.

‘PETE THE CAT’

In ad­di­tion, cer­tain shows could also help other as­pects of Ama­zon’s busi­ness. For ex­am­ple, “Pete the Cat” is based on a popular se­ries of chil­dren’s books, which are sold on Ama­zon. Mu­sic from “Pete the Cat” can also be streamed on Ama­zon Mu­sic.

“For the right prop­erty, it could live in lots of dif­fer­ent ar­eas in Ama­zon,” Wolfe said.

Stream­ing busi­nesses are also keen on bring­ing an­i­ma­tors to their plat­forms who have large fol­low­ings. For ex­am­ple, Hulu in 2020 will pre­miere “So­lar Op­po­sites,” an adult an­i­mated show about aliens cre­ated by Justin Roi­land and Mike McMa­han, who worked on “Rick and Morty” and have sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ings on so­cial me­dia.

“There is a mas­sive fan base be­hind these tal­ents,” said Beatrice Spring­born, Hulu’s vice pres­i­dent of orig­i­nals de­vel­op­ment.

“We know there is an au­di­ence that is go­ing to come for that.”

In ad­di­tion to “So­lar Op­po­sites,” Hulu also an­nounced it will add orig­i­nal an­i­mated pro­grams “An­i­ma­ni­acs” and “Cross­ing Swords” to its lineup. The Santa Mon­ica stream­ing plat­form al­ready has a large col­lec­tion of adult an­i­mated se­ries with more than 2,100 li­censed episodes. Hulu said on av­er­age ac­tive view­ers of adult an­i­mated se­ries on Hulu are stream­ing that con­tent nearly 20 hours each month.

The in­creased in­vest­ment gives new life to an­i­mated shows that couldn’t find a suit­able spot on net­work TV. For ex­am­ple, Jim Hen­son Co. for years couldn’t find a home for “Word Party,” an an­i­mated show that teaches tod­dlers new words.

“In the past, we have been pitch­ing to dif­fer­ent broad­cast­ers who have very spe­cific brand boxes,” said Halle Stan­ford, the com­pany’s pres­i­dent of tele­vi­sion, adding that TV net­works were look­ing for shows for chil­dren ages 4 to 5. “Now what we’re see­ing with these stream­ers is that they are cast­ing a wide net to all of these dif­fer­ent voices and look­ing for dif­fer­ent kinds of con­tent that don’t specif­i­cally fit into one brand box.”

Bud­gets for an­i­mated shows on stream­ing ser­vices are com­pa­ra­ble to those of ca­ble TV, and in some cases are higher than net­work tele­vi­sion, in­dust- ry an­a­lysts said. An av­er­age bud­get for a half-hour show geared to­ward the preschool au­di­ence is $275,000 to $350,000 per episode.

“They are much more mean­ing­ful than bud­gets that we have re­ceived in the past,” Stan­ford said. “We are able to cre­ate con­tent that is aes­thet­i­cally su­pe­rior and won­drous and what chil­dren de­serve.”

The re­newed in­ter­est in an­i­ma­tion has cre­ated new busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­dus­try veter­ans such as Seib­ert. His stu­dio is also bring­ing an an­i­mated se­ries based on the video game “Cos­tume Quest” to Ama­zon.

“It makes ev­ery­body re­think what they are do­ing, and that re­think­ing cre­ates new ex­plo­sions,” Seib­ert said.

Seib­ert started his own com­pany, Bur­bank-based Fred­er­a­tor Stu­dios, which in 2012 launched “Car­toon Hang­over,” a popular chan­nel on YouTube that fea­tured many an­i­mated videos, in­clud­ing “Bee and Pup­pyCat.”

Fred­er­a­tor amassed a suc­cess­ful YouTube mul­ti­chan­nel net­work and was later ac­quired by Van­cou­ver-based Rain­maker En­ter­tain­ment Co. Af­ter the merger, the com­pany changed its name to Wow Un­lim­ited Me­dia Inc., where Seib­ert is now chief cre­ative of­fi­cer.

50 EM­PLOY­EES

The Cana­dian com­pany, which em­ploys nearly 50 in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, saw its rev­enue more than dou­ble last year to $45 mil­lion (Cana­dian) due in part to de­mand from stream­ing com­pa­nies such as Net­flix, ex­ec­u­tives said.

“Castl­e­va­nia” con­tin­ues to draw a loyal fol­low­ing on Net­flix, which re­cently ex­tended the show for a third sea­son.

“At the time, there wasn’t re­ally any­thing like this out there,” said Larry Tanz, vice pres­i­dent of con­tent ac­qui­si­tion for Net­flix. “It was a great op­por­tu­nity to try some kind of new an­i­ma­tion with a very unique look and style from a re­ally strong cre­ative team.”

NET­FLIX TNS

The an­i­mated orig­i­nal ‘Dis­en­chant­ment’ is stream­ing on Net­flix.

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